I’ve been thinking about the effects of media on our lives, and We Become What We Behold makes me think about responsibilities as both a content creator and consumer. I’ve been affixed to social media lately. I open Twitter or Facebook, then get hooked by a political post that I “have to research.” I wander down a well of conspiracy and vitriol, completely conflicting viewpoints circling around the same data, each side accusing the other of the same crimes: racism, elitism, idiocy, inhumanity. Not once have I back from one of these quests feeling refreshed, optimistic, or hopeful.
A thought crossed my mind this morning while eating my favorite breakfast cereal: “Am I taking this action for granted? How much longer do I have to enjoy this before the world falls apart?”
I think like that while doing all sorts of mundane tasks lately.
These feelings likely come from a mixture of sources. My feelings on the election and where it potentially leaves the world are a factor, as well as the aging process that naturally makes many of us more conscious of time and mortality. But increasingly I think about the role of the media that I’m consuming, the articles I read and the videos I watch and the ideas I spend time thinking about. This isn’t a case of “the media made me do it,” but to ignore its influence would be folly.
A friend of mine shared a link to Nicky Case‘s We Become What We Behold a couple of weeks back, and I’ve been struck by the game since playing it. A five-minute game, you take pictures of figures ambling around on-screen, and those pictures become news headlines. The headlines influence the figures, and then you take new pictures. Conceptually, the cycle is simple, but we struggle with its implications in reality every day. As the game eventually points out, the consequences of this cycle can be deadly… they already have been.
The narratives you paint as “the media” start off innocent, casual, light-hearted:
When you take the first picture of a crazed figure yelling at innocent bystanders, it might feel strange or funny. But in a sound bite-rich, headline-prioritizing world, the stories that come from your pictures are laden with fear and anger: “Crazed Square Attacks.” “Circle Fears Squares.” “Squares Snub Circles.” Then a circle, turned red with anger from seeing the headline, starts lashing out at squares, causing squares to get angry and lash out at circles… and thus it begins. Or rather, begins to end.
Equally of interest is the feedback you receive when you take the “wrong” pictures. Capturing images of peaceful protest or love brings harsh feedback and won’t allow you to progress forward. Most telling is the feedback you get when taking a picture of the “Crazed Square” turned peaceful by a happy couple: “Peace is boring. Violence goes viral.” A second try: “And every story needs a conflict, so…”
After a third try: “GIVE THE AUDIENCE WHAT THEY WANT.”
Every “successful” picture of a square or a circle yelling incites more neutral parties to become angry, convincing them to wander around and yell as well. The happy couple eventually protests, calling for unity between circles and squares, but taking pictures of them does nothing to push the game forward. The only way to progress is to keep highlighting the anger, to keep giving the audience “what they want” until the population is filled with hatred. All it takes is one match to set the group ablaze, and the consequences are devastating. No matter how many times I play the game, its violent end always shocks me. It shouldn’t.
We Become What We Behold sits with me in ways many others haven’t. All content creators, large or small, play a role in shaping the world around us; for many of us, that’s precisely why we take on the task. But many pander to our basest fears and drives: fake news, incendiary blogs, Facebook and YouTube commentators with tens of millions of views who tell lies and incite anger. Like it or not, many of them are “successful:” they make money, they find sponsors, but most of all they retain the attention of the masses. They have power, and they use that power to reinforce a toxic agenda. The stories they tell get played out by the people who consume them: we become what we behold.
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” – Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philsopher
I tell myself that my compulsion to spend time on Facebook and Twitter “keeps me informed,” but I wonder how much it instead keeps me afraid, keeps me angry. Amidst all this, I wonder what role I’ve played in all of this, where a Facebook share or random Tweet has fanned the flames of anger, or a blog post could have set someone on the wrong path. Case’s game proposes no solutions directly, though media’s steering power feels as if it could push people to peace as well as war. It’s the role of creator to create quality media, and the role of the consumer to be conscious when consuming media.
I know that’s all abstract. I don’t know how to convince people to care more about their eyes, their souls, their fellow people living on this planet. I don’t know how to teach media literacy, how to convince people to look for viewpoints outside of their own, or to FACT-CHECK EVERY MEME REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THEY AGREE WITH IT OR NOT. I don’t know how to get people to spend less time perpetuating the swirl of social media echo chambers. I can talk about all of that here, but I don’t know how to actually get people to do it. I can barely get myself to do it.
In the meantime, I dread what comes in the wake of the violent riots at the end of We Become What We Behold. Without a serious course correction, I fear we’ll find out first-hand.